The wedding party

What happens when two young British Indians of different caste, culture and religion fall in love and decide to marry? What kind of celebration is in order? By Rose Shepherd. Photographs by Kalpesh Lathigra
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The Independent Culture
The wedding group surging out into the April sunshine through the doors of the Ramgaria Sikh Gurdawara in Forest Gate, east London, was a riot of colour and high good humour. The casual passer-by, uninitiated in the ways of Indian society, seeing the young couple with their skin faintly illumined with an afterglow of pithi vegetable dye, would have supposed that here had been a Sikh wedding in the immemorial tradition.

The bride appeared fragile and beautiful in the exquisitely embroidered robe she had commissioned on a visit to Bombay. She wore a great weight of bangles, two dozen on each wrist, which her brother, uncles and male cousins had slipped over her henna-stained hands. She had received from her mother a gift of 11 saris. All the time-honoured rituals were in some way observed. All but one. Anita Jolly, a Punjabi, a Sikh, had just married Dilip Morar, a Gujerati, a Hindu.

There has been, if not a sea change, in the Indian community, at least a certain relaxing of the rules. Love matches such as this are increasingly accommodated. Often, a bride will take her husband's faith, but some, like Anita, choose not to do so.

Anita and Dilip have known one another since primary school. Both are 24, both grew up in London's East End. As children they would have played - although not prayed - together. They were best pals, but drifted apart when Dilip started work for the Home Office and Anita went to college. At a 21st birthday party they met up again. Anita was by then at Westminster University; Dilip's office was nearby. They lunched together once, twice, five times a week. They were proud of their platonic friendship, but gradually it took a different turn.

"We knew this wasn't going to be just a casual relationship," says Anita, "So we both mentioned to our mothers that we were seeing somebody, but we asked them not to say anything to the family."

"Because," says Dilip, "once that happens, the pressure is on. So we kept it secret for a while."

In their parents' ideal world, Anita, eldest of three daughters, would have set the pattern for her sisters by marrying within her own caste, culture and religion; Dilip, youngest of four brothers, would in his turn have married within his. The partnerships would have been brokered by the families.

But, for young Indians born in Britain, the past is, in a very real sense, another country. It is not simply that they've received Western mores (Anita, although she went through a rebellious phase, was willing to consider an arranged marriage); there is a numbers problem, too. If she had had to marry a fellow Punjabi, fellow Sikh, fellow caste member, someone of good family, from her parents' native village, Anita's choice would have been limited. She might have had to leave London. She would have been sorely missed.

Her mother and father are strict, yet they have not proved to be rigid. Dilip's mother and father, although deeply religious, have made compromises. These parents, like many of their generation, are adopting a caring and pragmatic approach to the pairings of their children. Dilip and Anita are no Romeo and Juliet.

"The first time I spoke to my mum about it," recalls Anita, "we were sitting in the car. She said `You wouldn't want to marry a Hindu, would you?' I said `I don't mind, really, to be honest.' She asked, `Have you someone in mind?' I didn't say anything, so she said, `Do you want to marry Dilip?' Later, she said she'd already discussed it with my dad."

"I think my mum was thinking, since I was about 19 or 20," Dilip says, "that I would find my own wife. So she was OK about it." OK also, if not best pleased, that he did not wait to take a wife until his three brothers were settled.

In their turn, Dilip and Anita are respectful of the old orthodoxies, and are almost as wedded to family as their great-great-grandparents would have been. They are creating their own cross-culture, a blend of all that they find best in the Western and the Asian ways.

Anita had her hen night in a Greek restaurant in north Soho, Dilip his stag night in Tower Hill, a couple of weeks before the big day. There was so much preparation to be done. Anita's cousin came from India to help. Her brother and the youngest sister painted the exterior of the house. Her mother scrubbed the patio and made herself quite ill with exhaustion.

On Friday, 12 April, they had the formal, register office ceremony. The beautician got lost; couldn't find the Jollys' house. Anita had never worn make-up before; she felt very strange. As is customary, she turned up late. Late was one thing, Dilip thought; half-an-hour was pushing it.

The wedding ceremony on Sunday, 14 April, was a dazzling affair, Sikh in character, conducted in Punjabi, translated for the Morars by an uncle of Anita's. Then came a speech in Gujerati. Leaders from both communities gave their blessing. (The language difference can be tricky, but most family members on both sides hold Hindi in common.)

"The Sikh and Hindu marriage ceremonies are different," says Anita, "but they are quite similar in their meaning."

"They both go to the right place," Dilip agrees, "but they take different routes."

"If there was any problem," adds Anita, "it was in deciding which ceremony we were going to have."

"Some people argued that we should have both," says Dilip. "But, while a Sikh wedding only lasts an hour or two, a Gujerati wedding lasts four or five hours. It would have been too much of a strain."

Especially for herself, Anita laughs. Imagine spending six or seven hours with three coconuts hanging from either arm.

The bride's mother was tearful: in Asian culture, a daughter is "given away" to the husband's family, and it's like a little bereavement on the female side.

Back at the house, Anita's sisters stood in the door with a glass of water, barring the way to Dilip till he paid them money. Then there were rings to be given, not just to sisters, but also to female cousins. He was some pounds 60 down on the day.

The modern British wedding is over when the last of the champagne has been consumed, and the happy couple drive off with a condom over the exhaust pipe and a pair of kippers in the bride's suitcase. The modern British marriage is all too often over shortly after that. An Indian marriage tends to be more of an event, more involved and involving, more fraught with implications, and is probably more likely to be for life.

Dilip and Anita could not begin their honeymoon, were not even allowed to sleep together, until after the gorni, at which Dilip's mother was to feed nine married women. She couldn't do it on the Monday. The flight to Cyprus was at 2pm on Tuesday. Nine married women, therefore, sat down that morning to a large cooked meal on Dilip and Anita's behalf. Aboard the plane, the tired couple fell asleep.

Some weeks later, they still have invitations to honour, respects to pay and dinners to eat. If this were India, Anita would even now be in her finery. But she has a job to go to, and the bangles were weighing heavy; she is now down to a token one on each wrist. She and Dilip are deeply happy, but are looking forward to a new normality; they are looking forward to the rest of married life.

Theirs is a working partnership of the Nineties, and they both take a hand with domestic chores. "But when we go back to our families," jokes Anita, "Dilip just sits there on his backside. I get my revenge when we get home."

"Yeah, I have to do all the washing-up."

Anita's sisters and her cousins have ordered a baby for July '97, and by the end of this year, probably, the families will start pushing. But Anita and Dilip don't plan to have children yet. When they do, they will bring them up to know and understand both cultures and religions. "At the end of the day," says Dilip, "we just want them to be good human beings, to have good values and to respect other people"